Lisbon is a city famed for its nightlife – and the residents hate it

Lisbon. Image: Alexander De Leon Battista/Flickr/creative commons.

Lisbon's nightlife runs on a late schedule. Few arrive at a bar before midnight, at a club before 4, or go home until long after the sun has risen.

All that is about to change, however, as the city government approves new licensing laws to ease tension between party goers and embattled residents in the Portuguese capital.

Lisbon’s nightlife has exploded in the last five years, partly credited with fuelling a boom in tourism – an industry which last year was worth $11.6bn and accounted for 15 per cent of Portugal’s GDP.

“Today Lisbon is sold as the best nightlife scene in Europe. That phrase is essentially the slogan of the city tourist board,” said Jordi Nofre, head researcher at the LX Nights project, set up by the New Lisbon University to track recent changes in the city’s nightlife. “The night is one of the main products they have to sell.” The thriving night-time economy is a boon for a city slowly recovering from six years of painful recession and austerity measures, in a country still suffering 27 per cent youth unemployment.

Part of the lure for tourists is freedom. “When you look at guide books or travel literature, Lisbon is shown as a night where you can do whatever you want. In articles or forums online that’s the message that’s communicated, too,” explained Nofre. Lisbon has cheaper drinks than in most Western European cities, late hours – clubs rarely shut before 6am – and an open-air drinking culture suited to its Mediterranean climate.

The city’s nightlife movement sprung up in the 1980s in Barrio Alto. In the last decade it has rapidly expanded to other areas of the city, particularly Barrio Alto’s neighbour Cais do Sodre. The decaying area near the Lisbon docks – once home to brothels and sailors on leave – has been given a new lease of life with nightlife-fuelled gentrification, and the creation of the famous “Pink Street”. The Rua Caravalho was closed to traffic in 2012, and its floor painted pink, with bars and clubs being encouraged to open there – a symbolic recognition by Lisbon’s city hall of the central role of nightlife.

Yet not everyone is pleased by the increased status of the night. “We now have about 100,000 people drinking on the street of the entire neighbourhood every Thursday to Saturday. The city is being transformed into a huge nightlife amusement park,” said Isabel Sá da Bandeira, who runs Lisbon residents’ campaign People Live Here.

Many residents, particularly families, she said, have been forced to leave central Lisbon. “Those that cannot leave or do not want to leave are unable to sleep because of the noise caused by drunkards,” she added.  “In the morning they have to face floods of litter and [a] urine smell. It's really unbelievable that such scenarios are possible in the 21st century in Europe.” Some residents have fought back, with numerous reports of them throwing buckets of water over partygoers’ heads.

The gentrification of former working-class neighbourhood Barrio Alto, and more rapidly and recently Cais do Sodre, has changed the demographics of these areas and increased pressure on city government to deal with complaints. Sá da Bandeira admits that, in the past, “no one minded [about disruption caused by nightlife] as the large majority of residents were poor and old people.”

In an effort to resolve the conflict, Lisbon’s city hall has just passed, after lengthy debate, a set of reforms to its licensing laws. Across the city, shops must close at 10pm, drinking in the street after 1am will be banned, bars will have to close by 2am, and clubs and bars with dance-floors by 3am. Venues which renovate to meet strict soundproofing requirements can stay open till 4am.

Meanwhile, Lisbon’s waterfront – a long strip of land which hugs the Targus river estuary – has been designated a 24 hour zone. Clubs and bars can operate there as long as they like, and the area is receiving a clean-up to attract businesses and customers.

Rua Augusta in the Pombaline Baixa (lower town). Image: OsvaldoGago/Wikimedia Commons.

 

The works will be paid for entirely by Lisbon’s new tourist tax. A one euro charge collected from tourists at the airport, the port and in their accommodation, it has already raised half the necessary funds – €6.2m – despite only being introduced last year and only partially enforced.

Shifting all nightlife to the waterfront could be the solution, according to Nofre. “It’s n deserted area,” he said. “Nobody lives there. You can have music outside, live music even.” It’s also an easy area to control. “You could have police, ambulances, people giving information about the responsible consumption of drugs and alcohol. We’d be de-regulating the area in order to regulate it more.”

However, the waterfront plan is dimly viewed by many. “The idea of having people drinking 24 hours a day and having to cross paths with people wanting to enjoy a quiet and healthy environment is just crazy,” said Bandeira.

From a business standpoint, artificially pushing nightlife into one area could fundamentally alter the makeup of Lisbon’s nightlife industry. “It’s a very small area,” said Gonalço Riscado, a club owner and head of the C  business association. The size and waterfront location, combined with the scrapping of rent controls in Lisbon four years ago, means rents could soar. “It will only be possible for people with a lot of money, with these huge, popular, mainstream programmes,” he said. “Of course you also look for that when you have massive tourism in a city. But that’s not what gives you the soul of a city’s nightlife."

The move to stamp out drinking in the street has also met with criticism from bar owners who say that the open air drinking phenomenon is a longstanding part of Lisbon’s night-time culture. People have used public space socially in Lisbon since the end of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, a reaction of “liberation” according to Nofre. It is also essential to the night-time economy.

“Smaller bars depend on the public space because they have cheaper drinks and don’t charge entry,” said Cristóvão Caxaria, a bar owner in Cais do Sodre, when the measures were first proposed last year. “We are going to lose 50 per cent of our revenue with this restrictive measure”.

Barrio Alto in particular is populated by many very small bars – with space for only 10 or 15 people inside – which sell drinks “to go”,  feeding the throngs which line the street. This practice constitutes a major part of the current conflict between residents and nightlife. Yet, according to Riscado it is the direct result of previous attempts to regulate nightlife.

When Lisbon’s nightlife scene was first exploding ten years ago, he said, “they introduced a regulation which said that in Barrio Alto everything had to close at 2am. Restaurants, bars, clubs, everything. They thought this would be the solution to problems with residents.”

It was not. “In fact it caused a big problem. The bars and clubs which had existed at that time used to host cultural programmes inside”, offering music or other events to entertain people, as well as drinks. “But because they couldn’t be open till later they could not invest any more on their programmes.” 

These places ended up closing down and being replaced by “small places selling just drinks to the street,” with lower running costs.


This is one example of the Lisbon town hall’s “lack of strategic planning,” said Riscado. Others include a period in which many clubs and bars were given the same opening time as restaurants – 6am. “So then club owners said ‘I close at 4, I wait 2 hours and then I open again at 6,” explained Riscado. This lead to stragglers filling the streets and clashes with people going to work. “It became very difficult to be here in the morning.”

Riscado is cautiously optimistic that the different rules for clubs, bars and restaurants show the city government has finally understood the economic importance of nightlife and the need for sensitive strategic planning around it. The town council’s plans to create a night mayor – following the initiative of Amsterdam, Berlin, and several other European cities where an elected figure exists to nurture and advocate for the night-time economy alongside more day-focused local governments – also look promising.

Riscado agrees that something must be done to end the abuse of public space by bar owners who “use the whole street as their area of service.” He said, “Public space belongs to everyone. We need to work in a way that means both elements of the neighbourhood – living, nightlife; commerce and living – can work together.”

Yet with such a history of ill-advised regulations, Riscado is wary of authorities “viewing all nightlife in the same way”. Restrictions to hours in most of the city could impact not only bars which sell drinks ‘to go’, but also threaten venues which put on cultural events, like Riscado’s bar Povo and celebrated club Musicbox. “None of the work I do with helping new artists or bringing international groups to Portugal is profitable. It’s not for me and it’s not for many of the small clubs in Europe. What is profitable is that I can be open till 6am, selling drinks.”

Careful thought needs to be given to businesses with “cultural importance”.  “If we dis-invest in this importance,” he said, “then we will end up just being a city for bachelor parties, or students when they finish their high school.”

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A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.